Right to vote but little right of access

The aged and the disabled faced many hurdles as they came in their numbers to cast their ballot at Tuesday’s presidential election. Dhananjani Silva reports, Pix by Lakshman Gunathillake and Ranjith Perera.

They were determined to vote, despite age, infirmity and disability. Politically aware like most Sri Lankans, they would not even consider staying home on election day for they felt it was their duty to take part in the democratic process of choosing SriLanka’s next President.

But polling booths in schools, temples, churches and other community centres with no easy access for people using walkers, wheelchairs etc spelt trouble for the disabled. Similarly elderly and feeble voters too faced difficulties in accessing these polling centres where in many instances they had to climb steep flights of steps or walk on uneven ground, risking a fall. It was evident that access for this category of Sri Lankans was a problem.

Sumanadasa: 85 and has never missed an election.

Eighty-five-year-old G. Sumanadasa who lives in a home for elders says that he has never missed an election. “This was an important election. I somehow wanted to cast my vote and by 7.30 a.m.

I went to the polling booth,” says Sumanadasa. Due to the difficulty he has in walking, Sumanadasa said he had to go in a wheelchair. He was helped by one of his colleagues to reach the polling centre at Muttiah Park in Colombo, not far from the elders’ home.

Sumanada was joined by 68-year-old A. Martin who says that due to illness he is prone to bouts of shivering and finds it extremely difficult to walk.

The polling booth was not very far from the place I was staying so I managed to slowly walk up to the centre on my own. Once I got there, I was helped by the officers,” he says.

At the Thurstan College polling station, the Sunday Times met 62- year-old Fathima Haniya who was seen climbing the steps with difficulty to the classroom where the women’s polling booth was located. Living in the Town Hall area, Fathima says her son had hired a trishaw to take her there.

While the senior citizens of our country showed a great interest in the election, the enthusiasm among sections of the disabled was no less.

Podi Hamy, 87, lives at the Victoria Home for Incurables in Rajagiriya. In the past 40 years she has been there, she has never missed a single election. “We were taken to cast our ballot in wheelchairs by the staff members here. They had to lift the wheelchairs and help us get into the hall where there were steps and officers at the polling station too assisted us,” said a smiling Podi Hamy.

Podi Hamy: Disability did not deter her and many others at Victoria Home for Incurables when it came to casting their votes
An elderly woman gets a helping hand at a polling booth in Puttalam.

Like Podi Hamy, around 65 other inmates of the Victoria Home were taken in their wheelchairs to the booth at President’s College in Rajagiriya, the Home’s director K. Thewarapperuma told the Sunday Times.

“I was instructed by the GA to get special permission from the senior presiding officer at the station to make arrangements to take the inmates to the voting centre. So at around 8.30 a.m. we took them to the centre in several batches and by about 12 noon, they had all voted,” he said.

W.H. Nishantha, a disabled soldier living in Puttalam who exercised his franchise at the Palavi Sinhala Vidyalaya polling centre also had difficulties with access. He was disappointed at the plight of the disabled like him who are deprived of their right to maintain the secrecy of their ballot. “I lost my right hand in a landmine while serving in Mullaitivu last year. Therefore my issue was not about reaching the polling station but casting the ballot as I had to get the help of someone else to mark the ballot paper,” he said.

Similarly, Pradeep de Silva, a former Sub Inspector of Police who is confined to a wheelchair due to an injury to his spinal cord sustained in an accident while on duty, says he didn’t cast his vote due to transport problems.

“My home town is in Moneragala but I live at a rented place in Nugegoda because I have to undergo medical treatment. I couldn’t afford the cost of transport to go to the village to cast the vote; so this time too I was unable to vote,” he said.

It is time that the officials consider the issue of access for the disabled, elderly and the blind who have difficulties when it comes to either casting their votes or accessing the polling booths etc.

With a general election due in just a few months, the rights of this segment of our population must be taken into consideration.

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